Diana de Armas Wilson
In an endearing appeal to his readers, Sidi Hamid Benengeli — the Arab historian and pseudo-author of Don Quijote — asks to be celebrated not for what he wrote but for what he refrained from writing (11.44). To introduce a novel that has generated, down some four centuries, a staggering tradition of multilingual and polycultural commentary, one must cultivate Sidi Hamid's restraint. If Don Quijote needs a commentary to be understood — as its own hero suggests in a classic moment of metafiction (11.3) — this is scarcely the place for it. After a brief survey of Cervantes' life, I shall confine my remarks to three aspects of Don Quijote: the romance fictions it critiques, its generic transformation of these fictions into the first modern novel, and the connections between this novel and the newly discovered Americas.
The long and tangled history of the modern novel begins in Europe, and it begins with Cervantes. Hailing him as the inventor of a new genre, many critics have categorized Don Quijote as "the first great novel of world literature," or "the first modern work of literature," or "the archetypal novel. " 1. Two postmodern novelists, their lives and writings continents apart, have tried to account for Cervantes' legacy "to the entire subsequent history of the novel." The Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who regards Don Quijote as "the first European novel," celebrates Cervantes for teaching us "to comprehend the world as a question." And the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who embraces Cervantes as the "Founding Father" of Latin‐ American fiction, applauds the ethical stance through which he "struggles to bridge the old and new worlds." 2.
The writer who offered us this new way of reading the world, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, was born in 1547 and into a lifetime of continuous adversity, privation, and poverty. As the fourth child of a luckless barber‐ surgeon living at the margins of accepted Spanish society and even, at one point, in debtor's prison, the young Cervantes experienced a rootless child‐____________________